Resilience Housing after the volcano eruption in Vestmannaeyjar - Viðlagasjóðshús (Disaster relief houses) in Iceland

Activity: Talk or presentation typesConference presentation


Climate change has led to a drastic increase in the number of natural disasters worldwide. This has led to exponential growth in the number of people who have been forced to flee their homes. Studies of the present situation project that about 500 million people will have fled their homes by the year 2050. The global community is facing a challenge of immense dimensions. More and more of the affected people live in relocations and transitional environments for ever longer periods. “Transitional shelter”, originally planned as a short-term remedy while working on a long-term solution, has unfortunately often become synonymous with poorly designed and constructed dwellings, that ultimately become permanent.

Houses tell stories about the spirit and social circumstances of the era in which they were built, and about the technical knowledge, culture, and priorities at the time. The “Viðlagasjóðshús” (Disaster relief houses) in Iceland tell the story about swift responses to unexpected circumstances and about the ability of people and houses to adapt. On January 23, 1973, a volcano on Westamnn Island, off the south coast of Iceland, suddenly erupted and the island's roughly 5,000 inhabitants where rapidly evacuated to the mainland. At first, it was impossible to estimate the duration of the eruption and whether the inhabitants would be able to return home. Soon after the evacuation, actions were taken to build houses that could serve as a permanent housing solution, if needed. The Disaster relief fund organized the importation of prefabricated wooden houses from other Nordic countries. In total, 479 houses were built in 20 places around Iceland. These were simple houses that were common in the Nordic countries, but relatively unknown in Iceland at that time. Considerable work was invested in adapting the houses to the Icelandic climate and other conditions.
Most Westman Islanders decided to return home after the eruption ended, the houses were left behind and sold on the open market. They have been inhabited by many families, each of whom have adapted them to meet their respective needs.

A survey on the disaster relief houses was conducted in 2016 at Aalto University in Finland. It focused on the advantages and disadvantages of the houses, their qualities as homes and the adaptations that had been made to them. The findings from the survey and interviews with inhabitants demonstrate that the houses have passed the test of time and provided their residents with safety and shelter, both as emergency housing in the aftermath of the disaster and as permanent homes thereafter. They support previous findings on factors that are crucial when solving post-disaster housing problems: first, the importance of locally integrated solutions; second, that the layout design and technical structures allow the inhabitants to adjust the houses according to their needs; third, that the various local stakeholders are always involved in the decision making; and fourth, that long-term solutions are planned from the very beginning of the process.
Period14 Nov 201816 Nov 2018
Held atISCTE – University Institute of Lisbon, Portugal
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Reconstruction, disasters, Humanitarian Architecture, Cultural sustainability